BELMONT, N.H. – He once fatally shot a coyote on a morning jog, but Rick Perry barely touched on the Second Amendment when hanging out with Republicans in a firearms shop Friday night.
Instead, he mostly discussed policy and the difficult lessons learned since his disastrous 2012 presidential campaign. It’s the pitch he gives everywhere he goes — that he’s a better, more learned contender this time around.
But he’s got fierce competition.
In the southern part of the state, Republican contenders are swamping the Granite State’s more populated areas this week.
But while the national media concentrated on documenting every step of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s forays, Perry quietly worked small events in the sparsely populated region called the “North Country.”
The people who showed up to his VFW events earlier on Friday in the “North Country” are a familiar lot to Perry.
“I’ve got New Hampshire figured out,” he said.
The former state representative from tiny Paint Creek built his career connecting with rural Texans who feel the world has forgotten them.
At a VFW Hall in Littleton, N.H., Perry worked an eclectic crowd with similar sentiments. There was a New Jersey transplant couple, a man in a cowboy hat and belt buckle bigger than Dallas, a man in an Arkansas Razorbacks sweatshirt, a woman in a full-length mink and another man in a kilt.
Attendees cheered Perry's Air Force service, and in a region that produces maple syrup, they were flattered by his agriculture inquisitiveness.
And while the Mexican border is 2,300 miles away, immigration animates these voters as much as any political issue. Perry’s stump speech line — “If the president won’t secure the border, the state of Texas will” — reliably earns applause at these events.
But mostly, they were just pleased he bothered to show up.
New Hampshire is a well-worn path in primary politics. But places like Lancaster and Littleton are so remote that save for a Chris Christie visit last summer, few can recall a presidential candidate coming through to make a pitch.
Women and veterans were especially starstruck.
“We’re hard-pressed to get them to come up above The Notch,” Rey Stone, a naval veteran and retired plumber from Lancaster, said, referring to a pass in the White Mountains in the northern part of the state.
“I’m weighing them all,” he said after listening to Perry. “But I’m strongly leaning toward his views.”
It’s a risky calculation to split time and resources between the two. In recent history, candidates have tended to focus on one state or the other. But Perry, now a former governor, has no official responsibilities and has more free time to make his case in these smaller venues.
“I’ll be spending a lot of time, not just in Iowa and South Carolina and New Hampshire, but I’ll be in Florida and California and go home and rest in Texas from time to time,” he said.
On Saturday morning, Walker and Bush were on the front pages of the state’s two main newspapers. Perry's visit barely registered.
New Hampshire wasn't the only stop of Perry's weekend. After the Friday night gathering at the firearms shop, he rushed to get to Washington for the annual Gridiron Dinner, one of the last white-tie events anywhere.
The Gridiron is an exclusive journalism club, where memories of Perry's poor 2011 debate performance and his current indictment still dominate conversations about him. But among those in New Hampshire, few voters hold those issues against him.
When asked about the debate, many of these voters recalled their own on-stage embarrassments in spelling bees or childhood plays. And the indictment was typically disregarded as some form of political bias.
Stephen Erickson, a registered independent who has voted Democratic in the past, agreed that the debate was a bad moment, but also empathized with Perry. He also wouldn't rule him or anyone else out.
“Once it gets a little bit more towards the election, I’ll start paying a little more attention,” the hotel employee said. “It’s far too early for me, simply because a lot of the candidates are still up in the air about whether they’re going to run.”